On radical softness as a boundless form of resistance

by ila

How do we resist acts of violence and harm in an environment where public protests are not simply frowned upon, but completely against the law? How can one practise resistance in a public space that is made for privileged bodies? Inspired by a short essay by Be Oakley, CCP participant and multi-disciplinary artist ila calls upon an alternative public to build a text-based resource with her, so as to transform existing structures of power and hierarchies using radical softness as a boundless form of resistance.

Image from loramathis.com

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As a starting point, I am sharing the incident that has been a catalyst for myself and a group of artist friends to address the power structures that perpetuate/protect potential acts of violence, such as bullying, verbal abuse, sexual assault, and discrimination within our spaces. Prior to this, Coda Culture and Your Mother Gallery organised a group exhibition, Backstage, which lasted two weeks from the 2nd of March 2019, to provide local, locally-based, and emerging artists the platform to showcase works that were meant to be shown at Art Stage before it was cancelled. We were invited to perform on the 10th of March.

During the opening, we realised that one of the artists, Kai Que, was actually Chun Kai Qun, a convicted offender of sexual harassment and unlawful stalking. Due to the misspelling of the artist’s name, many of the exhibition’s participants and people who came for the opening were not aware of his involvement. We were angry and also horrified by this carelessness. What if the victim(s) had attended the opening not knowing that he was part of the show? One of Backstage‘s organisers, Seelan Palay, who also runs Coda Culture, invited us to carry forth a civil discussion framed around creating safe environments for survivors of sexual violence in art communities instead. We agreed to this and called for a closed door meeting, and separately on our social media accounts, invited people to come down to have this discussion with us. We allowed Jeremy Hiah, who was responsible for the misspelling, to be part of the discussion, and to also clear the air on how such careless organising can be overlooked. (Details of the discussion can be found here: link)

After the incident, we realised that a direct confrontational mode of discussion puts the groups involved at risk of further acts of violence, discrimination, and assault. Can we practise resistance without making ourselves visible and putting ourselves in danger? Be Oakley, in Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance, suggests using published texts as an alternative form of resistance in an alternative public, such that an author becomes “a protestor, each time a book is read, discussed and disseminated”. We wish to organise a space of creation for authorship to be shared and disseminated and for everyone to collectively perform the radical softness and affect change progressively and effectively.

Over these four months, we invite people who are interested to engage with us to share their own existing strategies in safeguarding against different forms of violence within art spaces and communities, recognise gaps that exist, and navigate together to distribute knowledge sharing as a mode of empowerment.

Here are some guiding questions:

  • Do we know what to do if we have experienced any forms of violence/know of someone who has?
  • Can we perform solidarity through acts of sharing resources?
  • Can we create affinities with each other based on what we believe in and not who we are?
  • Can we stop violent behaviours and potential assaults within our communities by having better support systems in place/dismantling existing systems?

The information that we gather will then be used to collectively build a text-based resource to address and hopefully prevent violence within our spaces and communities.

Through different modes of discussion with individuals and communities that have been silenced, disabled, and immobilised when addressing various forms of systemic violence,  as well as those who have lost opportunities by speaking up or have put themselves in danger or at risk, we wish to ask these questions (and more) and carve out the various modes of resource together.

Continuing on from Mathis’ point of altering how resistance is practised and articulated in the world⁠—especially within public spaces⁠—we wish to reorientate our focus away from the power dynamics of victims/perpetrators towards more productive, caring, and ethical collectives within the arts and outside of it.

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First closed door meeting with Chris and Wei Leng:

Best takeaways:

Chris: “Rather than closing, it opens up the narratives.”
Wei Leng: “How do you present an already prescribed pain?”

Collaboration:

On a high note, I met up with Jaclyn, who is also part of CCP, since we have similar points that we are interested in especially notions of care within spaces and how to practise it with one another. It was a nourishing Sunday morning and we realised several things:

  • Most people (including ourselves) do not know what to do or who to turn to (figures of authority aside from the police), when confronted with violent behaviours.
  • Freelancers and independent artists are one of the groups that are least protected as they have no institutional support/policies that can safeguard them against any acts of violence and discrimination. Because of this, we took some time to look at Art Resource Hub, the platform created by NAC for freelancers that was launched in August this year.
  • They offer templates of contract, which is really important for cases of late payment, cancellation of productions/projects, intellectual property rights, but sadly these templates do not cover any specific acts of violence such as harassment and discrimination. Maybe this clause needs to be added as an effective preventive measure?

Jacyln and I also found a Crisis Helplines section on the Art Resource Hub platform. For sexual harassment, the two helpline numbers are AWARE and Sexual Assault Care Centre. Jaclyn brought up a good point that there is no specificity in finding out who can offer more specialised support for practitioners in each discipline, such as in the visual arts, theatre, or others. I am also concerned that since casual workers such as freelancers and independent artists have no Human Resource department to fall back due to the nature of their employment, how can they protect themselves when acts of discrimination and harassment occur?

Lastly, we also came across this under the section of Crisis Helplines:

Actress and survivor Debra Teng’s talk show “Under the Carpet: #metoo” is an 18-episode passion project that deep dives into topics that most people find difficult to talk about.

I have watched two episodes and found them to be really thoughtful and insightful. Do watch it!

In the next three and a half months, we are planning to organise a talk (followed by focus groups) addressing the urgency of having safeguarding strategies within spaces, practising empathy and care among peers, and being informed individuals.

If you are interested to engage and contribute, please email me at: shahila.baharom@gmail.com.